Heavens, The Great Conjunction!

Our first view of the Christmas Star (Dec 19), © 2020 Susan Barsy

After a difficult year, the advent of the Christmas Star was something wondrous to look forward to.  The internet buzzed with how Saturn and Jupiter would align almost perfectly in their orbits, so much so as to appear as one unusually bright star.  This rare occurrence, coinciding with the winter solstice and technically known as “the Great Conjunction,” happens only once every four-hundred years.  The last time the Great Conjunction occurred in the night sky, however, was in 1226.  Earthlings primed to look up into the late December sky in 2020 stood to witness a cosmic and extraordinary rapprochement.  Bob and I (total amateurs when it comes to such things) talked over our astronomical excursion excitedly.

Seeing an astronomical wonder depends on information, good timing, and good luck.  Whereas some articles asserted that the planets would be visible for just forty-five minutes after sunset, from our present quarters in southwest Michigan, the two planets were above the horizon for almost two hours (per this sophisticated “time lapse” sky map for nearby Benton Harbor). The two planets had begun drawing closer to one another for many weeks prior to December 21 and will continue to appear close together in the night sky until early January.  The evening of the 21st was overcast in our area, but on the 20th and 22nd the conjoined planets (above) were easy to spot.

Pink halo above Jupiter (Dec 20), © 2020 Susan Barsy

On the 20th, as the sky grew dark, the two planets grew more distinct.  Jupiter sported a sweet pink halo; that was Saturn.  We found that our best view of the sky was from under some huge evergreen trees near a very powerful streetlight.  Gradually, we lost a clear view of the planets, as they descended at a roughly 45-degree angle toward the horizon.

The two planets (Jupiter and Saturn)

I took this photograph on the 22nd, using a Nikon with a 36x zoom.  This is a more clinical, scientific view.  The planets only appear to be “next” to one another, when they are hundreds of millions of miles away from one other and from us.  Saturn (at right) is roughly twice as far away from Earth as Jupiter is.

This picture from the 22nd, taken with my Sony on a tripod, better captures the thrill of seeing the two planets in the cold twilight sky.  Saturn is now clearly to the right of brilliant Jupiter.  Saturn looks like a pearl with an ermine ring.  Fiddling with this picture in Photoshop doesn’t improve anything.  The astonishing clarity of the planets filled me with awe.

The moons of Jupiter extend in a line to the left. New Buffalo, MI.

This was perhaps the best picture I took, because, to the left of the planets, one can just make out several of Jupiter’s moons.   The 22nd was partly cloudy, and we were lucky that the wispy clouds broke enough up to reveal this dazzling sight.  For a happy hour, we gazed up with our binoculars, our cameras, and our unaided eyes, until the planets disappeared into the trees.

All photos © Susan Barsy 2020

Ready or Not

Puck Christmas 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine.  She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity.  She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.

Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying.  Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.

In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored.  Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions.  Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee.  The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free.  So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.

Image from this source.

George & Martha Washington’s Christmas Pye

Virginia dining room from the Founding era (Thorne miniature)

In the Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute is a placard describing a special pie that George and Martha Washington are thought to have served on Christmas at Mount Vernon.

First make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot over, and will take at least four hours.

I puzzled to imagine the result of this outrageous recipe: a stew in a deep pot, swimming in butter?  Weren’t the Washingtons cooking up a food-borne disease?  The realities of their experience, though, turn out to have been far more pleasant and sophisticated; to an informed sensibility, the virtues of their Christmas Pie were considerable indeed.

Benjamin Latrobe, "Mount Vernon with the Washington family on the terrace" (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In November 1786, Washington’s old friend and military aide, David Humphreys, wrote the retired general regretting that he would “not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pie at Mount Vernon.”  Afterward, Washington replied that he could have used Humphrey’s “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes . . . on which all the company . . . were hardly able to make an impression.”

Ivan Day’s research into food history illuminates what the Washingtons’ Christmas pie looked like and how the dish was actually consumed.  The recipe above, meant to be eaten cold, was for a standing Yorkshire pie well known throughout Georgian England.  According to an interview Day gave to The Hill, the crust served only as a standing vessel for the meats and was not meant to be eaten.  Instead, the crust and the thick seal of butter encased the meat, preserving it air-tight, not just for days but weeks.  The main ingredients, spiced and tightly packed inside one another, created concentric circles in the cooked pie when sliced.  When the pie was ready to be served, the top was broken off and guests feasted on the terrine-like concoction resting inside.  (For representative pictures, click here, here, or here.)

Raised pies (Illustration from Mrs Beeton's)

Victorian-era illustration featuring meat and game pies.

The Yorkshire pie was a towering work of gastronomy and ‘a universal favourite at Christmas time.’  Making such a pie demanded time, ample resources, and patience, but the result was a showy presentation of the choicest meat delicacies, baked in a fashion that sealed in their flavors.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the Yorkshire Christmas pie, which remained popular for at least a century, became a calling card of the powerful and wealthy.  The Washingtons’ recipe, from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1784), explains that

This crust will take a bushel of flour. . . . These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore the walls of the crust must be well-built.

The Washingtons’ pie was not just massive and delicious, but a sign of their means and their ability to bestow largesse on other people.  Around the same time, the future English abolitionist William Wilberforce was arriving at a similar understanding.  Then a student at Cambridge, “he was truly hospitable,” for “there was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms, and all were welcome to it,” according to R. V. Taylor, in his Yorkshire Anecdotes, or, Remarkable incidents in the lives of celebrated Yorkshire men and women.

Merry Christmas, everyone!